And he punts, he punts (Oh baby)…

(Thanks to Ricky Martin’s song, “She Bangs,” for inspiring this post’s title.)

A few days ago I watched the online video of last Thursday’s (July 29) ABC daytime talk show, “The View,” during which President Barack Obama chatted up the “little people”—Obama’s clueless reference to the female occupants of the seemingly uncomfortable couch he was forced to sit on during his visit—in a seeming attempt to ratchet up his slumping poll numbers and fend off some of the nastier hits he and his administration have been taking during recent weeks regarding the BP oil debacle, a struggling economy, the Wikileaks scandal, and the bungled response to the Andrew Breitbart’s twisted condemnation of Shirley Sherrod’s talk to NAACP members.

What most interested me about Obama’s intellectual and rhetorical acrobatics—his varied justifications, evasions, hesitations, and campaign-like enthusiasms for American progress—is the evidence of his ongoing intellectual dream-like aversion to concrete reality despite his assertions that he is committed to changing the way politics is done in the United States and, in particular, in Washington, D.C.

This tendency was again revealed when his answers to questions asked by Joy Behar (where is the “attack dog” response in you/your administration when you are being hit hard by critics?) and Barbara Walters (Why don’t you describe yourself as biracial?) were directed away from the questioner’s clear intent—why can’t you defend yourself, fighting for what you believe in; why can’t you address your identity in a public/political way to clarify your relationship to various cultural and racial communities?—to abstractions.

I say abstractions because central to the meaning of abstraction is separation and distance. In Obama’s answers he distanced himself from the questions’ intent and hope for direct answers by, in Behar’s question, redefining the question as one of choosing not to do politics as usual: that dirty, nasty, grimy work of negotiation, compromise, wheeling and dealing, interest-brokering that is the stuff of politics and, in Walter’s, referring listeners to his autobiographical texts.

Indeed, Obama has always represented politics as unseemly and unappealing, as something brutish and irrational, selfish and subjective rather than what he rhetorically represents as the loftier, more virtuous work of governing as techne which focuses on expertise, collaboration, and cooperation. Governing is simply about exhorting and pushing people to act virtuously, and in the common interest, in order to achieve progress–to do good works–which seems to have waned in recent years.

Governing is objective, unemotional, rational, and simply purposive for Obama, part of an overall vision of our better selves acting as one and thinking and believing in the same things with optimism and hopeful, dream-like energy.

These–his justifications to Behar and Walters to be apolitical and to read his autobiographies–are all about policy, not politics, which is fundamentally odd because both word roots are all about the “pol” or the people, the citizenry (one can’t be done without the other!) and are just two examples of his regular evasions, even denials, of the political responsibility of the president to engage in politics as the formal leader of all the citizens not only executing the law, but ensuring that the proposed laws are in fact amenable to a common public good that address historical deficits, present problems, and future needs.

Obama effectively limits his personal and political capital by narrowing the vision of the presidential office to that of a mere functionary or technocrat who suggests and administers policy. He wastes not only his symbolic power to inspire and balance the other governing branches, but the real power to cajole and shape and lead, to locate and define common interests and goods within U.S. socio-historical space and time.

This presidential power comes from not just the historical, cultural, and ideological context that creates the office, but the person who inhabits the position both objectively and subjectively.

By ceding his subjective, interpersonal political power to the abstract notion of a technical, administrative ideal as president, leaving it to others to do his job of presenting (without really knowing) his politics and policies and then blaming them when they don’t follow through despite his ambivalent, hesitant leadership—e.g., read my books if you want to understand my biracial identity; the media is to blame for creating the Breitbart/Safford controversy; my administrative underlings screwed up, not me!—he becomes an abstraction because he is set apart, distanced from everything and everyone.

Even his “progressive” vision of America and its dream-state are distant, future-oriented, and abstract given the problematic conditions of the present. Any future defined by a progressive narrative relies on a present that is actively defined in political ways. There is no way to improve the human condition—the overthrow of irrational, theistic tyranny and the despotism of destiny was intended to favor an empirical, more rational, scientific enlightenment and human-centered modernity and agency—without acknowledging that human agency is at the center (which is politics: governance by human-created and maintained institutions) and not god(s) (which is religion: governance by divinely inspired and created institutions) for good and ill.

This is where Obama is wrong about progress and its achievement. Progress is not achieved by simply asserting idealized political attributes and desires for living good, decent, fulfilling lives, but in the active responses we give to the varied, subjective, unequal, contextual lives we inherit and respond to. The denials of and diversions from inequality and difference, of cultural, racial, ideological, and historical conditions that give rise to vast differences of opportunity that rely on the kinds of abstract ideals—separations from current economic, cultural, and ideological realities that Obama propagates—make it unlikely that he and his administration are or ever will be able to achieve something fantastically called the common American good unless they begin to actually make their politics more than a rhetorical commitment to good policy and one of a commitment to fighting the good fight for the good of the nation and its people.

They need to stop passing the buck, so to speak, and take responsibility by putting their lofty rhetoric into action. This means, stop distancing and separating (e.g., abstracting) and make concrete, direct, energetic efforts to actively engage in the public life of the citizens of this nation.

That would be both good policy and good politics.

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